Jun 26, 2012

Chromebook, Surface Tablet, or iPad?

I have been reading a lot about how the new Microsoft Surface tablet will be an iPad killer. I don't think iPad will roll over and die anytime soon, but it's interesting to see how it fares against Google Chromebook and whether the post-PC era is finally here.

I am a big fan of Chromebook. I bought both the generations of Chromebook weeks after launch.
The first Acer one was a gift for my dad visiting from India last year. He needed an email/ browsing laptop with no virus/ maintenance hassles and Chromebook was the perfect choice. I bought the second generation Samsung Series 5 550 three weeks ago. It's been the perfect 'couch-surfing' tool, while watching TV for quickly checking email/ social media/ news.

However, Chromebook has a marketing challenge in defining its niche. It is neither a lighter and faster-to-boot-up Netbook (lacks Windows apps) nor a ‘tablet with a keyboard’ (lacks touchscreen). Neither positioning is sufficiently compelling to mainstream users, as shown by its poor sales.

 I believe you can appreciate Chromebook only if you share a few key beliefs about the trends in personal computing

Need for Content Creation: Tablets are great toys for consuming content, but  they are poor tools for generating content, howmuchever skilled you are in typing on the glass. iPad Safari is not the greatest browsing experience for web sites either. Chromebook solves this problem elegantly by offering a sturdy laptop with near-tablet portability and long battery life.

No More Offline: The biggest complaint against Chromebook is that it’s useless without Internet connection, but any computer today is effectively a ‘brick’ without Internet. When was the last time you worked for 10 minutes on a computer without looking something up on the Web? ‘How about flying’ will be the most common response. Yes - Chromebook might not be the greatest choice if a) if it’s your primary work computer AND b) if you fly a lot AND c) you get a lot of work done from coach. Google is working on providing offline capabilities to Google Docs in baby steps. And Docs will be integrated with Google Drive soon.
Commoditizing Office: Microsoft Office applications have been maturing and the marginal value from each additional release has been diminishing. Most people use Office for plain word processing & spreadsheets, without even using 10% of its features. I still don’t see knowledge workers in large enterprises letting go of their Word & PowerPoint in the primary work computer, but for most private and casual usage, Google Docs are more than good enough.

Instant gratification: has been the biggest problem with Windows laptops that take forever to start up and shutdown. An SSD Windows laptop is quite pricey and I am not sure if it drastically reduces the time. Chromebook is amazingly fast in booting up in 7 seconds thanks to the flash drive and the super-thin OS.

Low-end Disruption: Chromebook is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls ‘low-end disruption’ in ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’. Due to its low price (& eliminating the need for Office license), Chromebook becomes compelling to small businesses or schools/ education or emerging markets as an email & browsing device that can be cheaply rolled out to many users. Google Apps for mail and documents are increasingly becoming attractive even for large enterprises (example: Roche). It'll be interesting to see if a large employer like Indian Railways or Walmart deploys Chromebook to even 10% of its employees!

How does the Microsoft Surface tablet (RT or 8 Pro) measures up on each of these trends?
  • Keyboard: smartly embedded in the cover, unlike any other tablet
  • Offline: likely to be better than Chromebook
  • Office: expected to be included - no need for a budget trade-off decision.
  • Instant gratification: has to be better than Chromebook by definition (tablet!)
  • Low-end disruption: Chromebook does have an edge there, as Surface is not exactly low-end and unlikely to be deployed to the masses.
All of these suddenly make the decision of a potential Chromebook buyer a lot harder: Would I have paid $450 for a Samsung Chrombook ($550 for a 3G), if I could buy a Surface tablet for $600? I don't think the answer is a no-brainer, irrespective of the price, since a Surface tablet (RT or 8 Pro) is far lighter than Chromebook and seems to have a gorgeous touchscreen with the Metro UI that can run all the Windows apps (8 Pro).

I am still happy about the Chromebook purchase, as Surface tablet is at least 6 months away, but I wonder about the future of Chromebook and ChromeOS. I hope Google comes up with an ultra-portable and sturdy tablet-PC with a real keyboard on Android - cheaper & better than the Surface, not just 'on the surface' :-)

Update (10/18): Google today announced the next generation of Chromebook starting at $249 (swapping x86 for ARM). I think it completely changes the game. At $450, it was a tough call, but at $249, Chromebook is a bargain compared to Surface Tablet and iPad, especially if your needs are simple and you share the key beliefs outlined here. I think it was a very smart move by Google to price-cut competition and appeal to the masses and we'll see how it plays out.